The second year of grieving was, in some ways, harder than the first. After a year of stumbling through the unreality of loss, of staying busy with Min’s affairs, the love room still lingered. In fact, it became richer, luminous, a place more welcoming than my everyday life. But that rarefied comfort was equally matched by the heightened awareness that my aunt was really gone. The truth pressed down like a blade on tender flesh.
It had been a year. Friends and other family saw me go through the routines of functioning as I continued to teach, to stay in touch with daughters, to do the details of keeping up a home. But I still very much lived in the hidden country of grief. I still followed the trail of little letters, trying to find my way back to my aunt.
Comforts and joys that shored me up through this difficult second year included digging through my aunt’s boxes of old letters, and taking trips down South where I tracked down our Louisiana family and met many newfound cousins.
These all gave me the strength begin to bear the impossible reality of the end.
Oh, Little Honey,
I’m pretty sure you’re too far away, and too much in need of the holy rest, to drop down here to touch me. I do feel you, though, thin and wispy. Are you still between worlds, sinking and sinking into deeper levels of the mysterious Emptiness? Are you all glory yet? All light and airy shine? All melted into love? Or are there some small bits still unresolved, maybe something you are holding onto? Would one of those be me? If so, I want you to know that it’s okay to let go. I want you to be free. I want you to sink into whatever light loveliness is waiting for you, whatever dark beauty.
Like the mystics say, maybe you have been absorbed into the great heart of the Holy One. May you sink into rest. May you un-become in the womb of the Great Surprising Tenderness. May you be free.
And the love room? It’s still our share of the Great Surprising Tenderness, where sharp edges softened and our hearts braved discontent, our hands grabbed hold—sometimes clenched, sometimes gentle. But we never let go. We danced together, sipping the sweet wine of making the best of it all.
I don’t want this to end, this time of remembering you, of keeping an ear turned your way. Even doing all the crappy details of tying up what’s left of your life is better than nothing. I’m still afraid of the emptiness, the hole you’ve left. So this is what I have now: the stories—yours, left over, and mine, still giving birth. Our love room shrine, and the empty space you used to fill.
The world is a quiet, duller place without your crackling wit, your sparkling eyes, the joyful juiciness of your laugh.
I wish you had been able to go home, to be surrounded by your very familiar things. I wish I’d had a chance to love you more, or better. But you were tired.
What else is there to say? I’m so glad to have had you in my life.
I’ll probably keep slipping through the love room, just in case you might pop in at the most unlikely times. Maybe I’ll start to sort out your letters; probably, I’ll find more of you there.
I’m sure I’ll visit you from time to time, just be swept up by the simplest, familiar thing and meet you there. Your breath still hangs in the breath of the world. We are breathing together, even now.
One catch-up chore after another, I am laying you down. I’m not in a hurry, just doing the work. Trying to pick up all the pieces of my own life, set aside to keep up with yours. There are piles of papers to sort and file, school work to update, things to throw out or keep, photos to put in albums, plans to make for my own future. After twelve years of working for you, I am older and, having seen your end, I can see my own.
But I’m not there yet. I’m realiziing that I’ve been carrying your aging and death as if they were mine, as if I were the one faltering and then gone, but that’s not true.
And something new: I’m finding little bits of niggling anger with you for co-opting my life. You knew I wouldn’t leave. You held on tight. Now I have to go back and see what I’ve given up, and what I can reclaim. There are some things, probably, that are lost forever: possibilities, a certain liveliness I might have had at fifty that has passed me by. I wonder how things might have been if I weren’t so used up. Still, the anger is all tangled with the bright, warm joy of loving you, and the grace of growing deeper into your heart, and mine. Of coming together to build the love room that sheltered what had been delicate and rare, and grew strong and sure and irreplaceable in the close-to-the-bone times. There is that, too.
Now, bit by bit, chore by chore, I am coming back to this body-home, without you. Maybe I’ll find new parts of me, but I am sure even these will be flavored with you. Oh, I have loved you so much. What a grace this has been, the awkward trek through being, and not being, with you.
I don’t want to finish, don’t want to wrap up the sweet, tortuous work, the loose-limbed grief, the gasping emptiness. They are what I have of you; these, and the breathy conversations we still have in the love room that is coming apart.
How could it be that something so real—so bright and rich and full, so hard and fun and surprising as the togetherness we made—just stops? How could there be an end?
That spark and spirit and curiosity, and all the learning and changing and wanting to hold on, even all the niggling anger and resentment and the litany of complaints—how could they not hang in the air, rush just beneath the surface of my skin, be part of my bone and blood and thoughts, something I see everywhere I turn?
How could the love room not be waiting for me, that small, quiet corner where I can still look at my hand and see yours, reach out and feel the breathy air that might be you taking hold of me? How could it be gone? How could you?
I’m still not ready for the end.
How has the love room come to consume so much of my life? Why is it realer than everything else—better, even, than time with friends, or anything exciting that takes energy? Has it somehow gobbled me up, held me captive? Is it easier for me to live in the sweet cubicle of our togetherness than to re-enter the noisy, busy, throbbing of life? Can I leave the love room behind? Can it let me go? Can you?
Somehow, my life has become this: the bubble of our lives together, and the intangible, airy truth of missing you.
I sit in the rocker, making notes, end up straightening your shawl. I could give it to one of your friends; they did love you so much. Or maybe I should save it for someone in the family. Of course, after a certain point, family is just another name for all the people we love.
I think it would have meant something to say goodbye before you left. Maybe my words would have been less stilted, my heart less timid than usual. Maybe I’d have gathered up courage and looked you straight in your tissue-lidded eyes—your fading eyes—and said, “Goodbye. I love you. I won’t forget. You’ll live on in me. It was so, so good to know you.”
I suspect, if I had been there, that the terrible, thrilling mysteriousness of life-death-love would have flooded right through us—caught up all the tangles of our still-guarded hearts and swept them away: all the holdings, the awkward habits, any rough-edged memories. We would have been freed.
Maybe all this happened anyway, even though I wasn’t there and you left with no one holding your hand. Maybe all the catching up and sweeping away, the emptying out, is happening even now. We’re there until we’re done—and are we ever done? I don’t know that yet.
I do know something feels different lately, but even knowing that makes me afraid: afraid of losing you, of losing who I was with you. I am still kneeling on the cool floor of the love room, still swaying with whatever wind blows if it has even a whiff of your sweetness on its breath.
Maybe the love room isn’t just for people. Maybe everything that lives—leans against another for long enough—makes an organic mesh of life, something just their own, that only the two can share. An enduring love room of habit and memory and continuing on.